World T20: Pakistan look for that lost swagger, an end to a 20-year-old nightmare - Firstpost

World T20: Pakistan look for that lost swagger, an end to a 20-year-old nightmare

By Assad Hasanain

It has been four years since that memorable night in Melbourne. A new generation of cricket fans has since taken birth, reveling in the inimitable flair and bravado of its team. On the eve of a World Cup quarter-final in Bangalore, Pakistan are confident. A loud and boastful song, “Hum jeetaingay” (we will win) plays every few minutes on the state television channel.

India's players celebrate their victory as Pakistan's Misbah-ul-Haq walks off after the 2007 T20 World Cup final. Reuters

India's players celebrate their victory as Pakistan's Misbah-ul-Haq walks off after the 2007 T20 World Cup final. Reuters

There is something positively sickening about this game though, the ghostly silence of a partisan crowd perhaps or just the very enormity of the occasion, every nervous cheer feels like rooting against a horror story, one that will tantalise but inevitably unveil its torturous climax.

The whole day is still a blur to me; Wasim Akram pulling out in the morning, Ata-ur-Rehman the unlikely conqueror of Sachin Tendulkar; Navjyot Singh Sidhu, one of the few feisty Indian players of that era batting aggressively, a tense Javed Miandad fumbling the ball on the boundary and finally Waqar Younis. Oh Waqar! It was the game that first revealed Waqar’s mortality and put perhaps the first blot on an otherwise untouchable career.

On the batting front, those were the happy days. Pakistan batted with the confidence that betrayed a winning habit, cruising to 113/1 with a rampant Aamir Sohail and Saeed Anwar setting a glorious foundation. And then came a moment that possibly robbed the 90s generation of its swagger. Aamir, after thrashing Venkatesh Prasad for a boundary, gestured aggressively to the bowler.

His stumps were castled in the very next ball and he received a humiliating and admittedly well-deserved send-off. A nervous and ageing middle order was clearly never going to manage the remainder of the high pressure run chase. However, as the last wicket fell, it was still barely believable. Our mighty Pakistan team who were used to beating India for fun, lost out to them in a World Cup? Impossible!

Fast forward to 1 March, 2003, at Centurion Park. We are now almost adults, many of us in our formative college years. We are still illogical cricket fans though, greedily clinging to the nostalgic memories of the last decade. Seven years after he infamously pulled out of Bangalore, the intoxicating wizardry of Akram remains untouched. The villain of Bangalore, Waqar, is now Pakistan’s captain and struggles to unite a ragged and bickering team. There is an inevitable melancholy that accompanies this Pakistani team, a realization that it is perhaps the last we will see of their great talents.

This is essentially a contest between two teams in different trajectories of their cricketing journey; an Indian team under Sourav Ganguly’s captaincy dusting off its timidity and finally coming of age; and a Pakistani team on borrowed time occasionally showing vestiges of its former self.

A bearded Saeed Anwar was in the runs, compiling a cautious, dogged 101. Once Pakistan got to 273, we drew some comfort, we had seldom lost against India when defending such high scores. The tables were turned though, and India rode on the back of a culture of fearless batting the new decade had ushered in. In hindsight, this was the occasion when the balance of power in Pakistan-India contests shifted perceptibly. It was a time of great sadness too; Akram, Waqar and Anwar, the darlings of the great 90s side, were unceremoniously dumped and retired from the game thereafter.

It was 24 September, 2007, at Johannesburg. Pakistan have blazed their way into the final of the inaugural World Twenty20. They appear to be clear favorites in this new format that appears to be explicitly tailored for their brand of low attention-span power hitters. The bowling is varied and clever, and the new captain, Shoaib Malik, has shepherded calm run chases through the tournament.

India batted first and scored 158, which was slightly under par considering a rather average Indian bowling line-up and easy batting conditions.

This was the game that first introduced Pakistan to the captaincy wiles of Mahendra Singh Dhoni. His clever bowling gambles coupled with Pakistan’s typical batting implosions reduced the line-up to a pitiful 77/6. Enter Misbah-ul-Haq, Pakistan’s batting messiah. A dash of sixes and small partnerships meant we were six runs away, staring into the eyes of victory.

But then came the bugbear, that World Cup curse. Misbah went for an inexplicable high risk paddle sweep, a polite medium pacer called Joginder Sharma became etched into cricketing folklore. Where heartbreaks go, this one ranked right up there with Bangalore, it was the similar empty feeling of being denied a rightful prize.

October 2011, Mohali. We are now adults. Some of us have moved away from home, some have even given up on cricket. Our team has charted an unlikely run through to the semi-finals of the World Cup. It is a measure of the times that Pakistan’s presence in the semi-finals is considered a surprise.

The pace of the older days is slightly dimmed, Pakistan instead has a new strategy: A devious and cunning spin strangulation. The team now centers on the enigmatic brilliance of its captain Shahid Afridi and the wiles of its two off-spinners, Saeed Ajmal and Mohammad Hafeez.

The batting, though, is unmistakably brittle and old-fashioned, stubbornly clinging to its strategy of conserving wickets and hitting out in the closing overs. After the inevitable top order collapse, Misbah and Younis Khan crawl their way through the middle overs, setting the stage for a final burst by the lower order to take them to their destination. This is no fairytale 1992 story though. The Pakistani lower order is brittle and nervous, the pressure of a semi-final run chase on a sticky turning wicket is too much to handle. They panic. They fold.

We are now realists. Egos hurt, we accept that beating India in World Cups is now a mental block, something reminiscent of South Africa’s choking problems in World Cup knockouts.

The Pakistan-India games in the two previous World T20 events were a pale shadow of former Pakistan-India contests. Both games followed a freakishly similar script; a Pakistani team batting first, losing early wickets in its eagerness to attack, Dhoni making clever bowling changes, Pakistani batsmen unable to rotate the strike and a blundering Mohammad Hafeez playing a misinformed anchor role that only ended up slowing down the innings to an unrecoverable crawl.

Towards the middle of the innings when Pakistan historically attacked India’s part time spinners, fearful batsmen were instead forced to consolidate singles against bowlers like Suresh Raina, Virat Kohli and Yuvraj Singh. A silver lining, if you can call it that, was that there was no more heartbreak; the optimism of younger days had now given way to a painful acceptance: This was an average Pakistani side at best.

So here we stand today, a story unrecognizable from two decades ago. The roles it seems are directly reversed, a timid Pakistan side burdened by a bevy of debilitating losses to India. And an Indian side that has learned to enjoy the pressure and reserves its best cricket for arch- rivals.

Traditional strengths have remained steadfast though, Pakistan’s culture of fast bowling aggression and India’s silky batting generation.

Where India have added considerable variety to its weaker suit, Pakistan’s batting has digressed into unrecognizable ineptitude. The opening games of the 2016 world T20 have thrown an unexpected late twist to the plot.

Pakistan suddenly discovered unlikely batting form against Bangladesh by surpassing 200 for the first time in a T20 event. India, on the other hand, revealed a glaring chink in their batting armor against New Zealand. Whatever the context, as the two rivals enter the Eden Gardens on Saturday night, it is still Pakistan who will carry the weight of the world on their shoulders as they look to wash away the haunts of this 20 year old recurring nightmare and rediscover their swagger.

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